Cary, North Carolina, USA
On Ruth Holzer's "Bruehl"
We were off duty for the weekend and went up to Bruehl. Years later, the city would become known for a fatal train wreck right at the station, but back then, the main attractions were still the elaborate castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust. Where I saw Old World grandeur, he saw only the injustice of royal oppression. Anyway, he had been there before, with his wife and children. We stopped for coffee at an Italian restaurant on one of the main streets. We talked and talked. Then it was afternoon and we ordered lunch and talked more. Downstairs, the rest rooms were pink and black—like a bordello, he said, and hummed a tune from "The Threepenny Opera." By then it was evening, and we had dinner there too. We considered going to a piano recital at night, but returned to Bonn instead. As he drove, he recited "Death Fugue."
to other people
In "Bruehl," Ruth Holzer employs understatement and multiple allusions to reveal a microcosm of two lives bisecting with unexpected intimacy. She provides a time-exposed snapshot of these individuals as they move briefly across an historical landscape. To do this, she uses just 150 words in 11 varied-length sentences of expository, almost flat journalistic prose, as well as a 7-word definitional and humorless senryu and a simple 1-word title. Although not written in the present tense, as many haibun are (or are expected to be), her narration can be placed there either (a) as a personal, inside-the-head recollection preserved in the narrator's diary or (b) as a spoken-aloud, shared anecdote with a mutual friend, someone who knows both the narrator and perhaps her traveling companion. As close and slow readers (i.e., doubling-back re-readers), we become eavesdropping listeners admitted into the narrator's confidence.
The title "Bruehl" (or "Brühl") is a place name, of course, and probably has no significance to most nonresidents of this German city of approximately 50,000 population, the hometown of Max Ernst, prominent 20th century surrealist and dadaist. The title matter of factly sets the scene here, just as "Marienbad" or "Venice" might be used to place other figures in other landscapes. A clever variation, such as "Last Year at Bruehl" or "Death in Bruehl," would have been facetious or revealed too soon the narrator's hand, turning her serious expression into a sardonic poker face.
The prose narrative begins in media res. It's unknown until the penultimate sentence from whence the pair have arrived―Bonn, former capital of Germany, a 25- to 30-kilometer drive southeast of Bruehl, little more than a half-hour each way. Based on the first statement's bare facts, it's also unknown what the pair share besides being "off duty." They may be married to each other and have left their children with a babysitter or a friend. Or they may be married, but not to each other, and are having an affair. Or they could be day-tripping co-workers stepping outside their everyday roles as, perhaps, translators working for a university or the military or a government in order to take a Saturday spin in a rented car.
The narrative jumps ahead in the next sentence to a time "years later," which helps the reader guess when the events in the haibun took place. As the narrator begins to recall her time in Bruehl, she first pauses to think of a human-caused tragedy, foreshadowing perhaps another type of disaster that she and her companion managed to avoid in the same city. Moving at more than 120 kilometers/hour on February 6, 2000, the D 203 "Schweiz-Express" Amsterdam-Basel derailed in the Bruehl train station while passing through a passing-siding switch that was meant to be used at no more than 40 kilometers/hour. Nine persons died, and many dozens were injured. The narrator oddly equates this memorable event with two of the city's more conventional tourist attractions, the ones she and her traveling companion visited when they reached Bruehl after perhaps a leisurely scenic drive through the countryside south of the city. Built in the 18th century at great expense by the Elector and Archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August von Wittelsbach, in the grand rococo style, Falkenlust is a former hunting lodge used by the archbishop for falconry and entertaining ladies, and Augustusburg Castle was used by the German government for 50 years after World War II as a reception hall for guests of state.
The narrative reverts to the time of the haibun in the third sentence. This statement is a miniature study in contrasts―she's impressed by the past, while he petulantly rails against old injustices. She doesn't dwell on this difference of opinion. Instead, in the next sentence, she focuses on the only biographical detail given about either of them in the haibun―he's a father of more than one child and may still be a husband. She precedes her flat aside with a dismissive "anyway," as if to say, "to make a long story short," and she adds a comma for perhaps a judgmental pause before revealing the telling biographical detail. It's at this point in the haibun where a close reader should begin to wonder what's going on inside the minds and emotions of these characters.
Rather than tell us directly though, the narrator uses the next three sentences to describe almost from an outside observer's perspective their long conversation over coffee, which continued through lunch, and then ran on into the afternoon and evening. The effect of revealing nothing substantial, of looking in from the outside, is that it piques the reader's interest further to get involved and to overlay a probable conversation onto theirs. What the pair discussed is left up to the reader's imagination, which is often the best technique for a haibun practitioner to follow.
The final four sentences do reveal parts of the couple's conversation, but they're mostly his parts―a paraphrased off-hand comment, his humming of a cabaret song, and his recitation of a poem. Except for their joint decision to not attend a piano recital and to return to Bonn instead, the narrator's thoughts and opinions are not shared. We can only continue to try to read her mind by interpreting what she has decided to tell. After drinking coffee all afternoon and having lunch, the man (and the woman, too, most likely) needed to use the necessary rooms. The tune that the man hums from The Threepenny Opera is left up to the reader to decide. The 1928 play by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill has many more songs besides "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" that Bobby Darin made famous in the late 1950s, including the "Song of Solomon" sung by Jenny the prostitute in the final act, which ties in with an allusion at the end of the haibun.
Had the narrative ended here, it would have been a bland traveler's tale about a foiled lovers' tryst, perhaps not worth rereading except for sexual innuendo, especially if a one-dimensional poem, such as the following hypothetical one, had been used to cap it: "red street light / flashing on a wedding dress / in a shop window." Ruth Holzer's choice of a last sentence and her poem, however, make it a haibun worth remembering.
The last statement in the haibun's prose is quite simple: "As he drove, he recited 'Death Fugue.'" This is Paul Celan's 1945 poem, "Todesfuge" in German. It was his first poem to appear in print and was published originally in Romanian as "Tangoul Mortii." The poem is generally considered to be "the Guernica of postwar European literature," according to John Felstiner,* and "has become a historical agent, accumulating its own biography." The poem's speakers, Jewish prisoners in a German concentration camp, chant the opening lines:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance
After this first stanza, "Todesfuge" continues for three more stanzas of a similar length, all variations of the first stanza, repeating in greater intensity its thoughts and phrases. Shulamith is introduced in the sixth line of stanza two: "Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped."
Imagine riding in a car at night in Germany while the driver next to you recites a poem from the Holocaust in a calm monotone, perhaps in German. What might have triggered him to recite it? They leave Bruehl at night, possibly under a sky of "sparkling" stars. They return to Bonn on the same day that they arrived in Bruehl, a Saturday most likely (until sundown, the Sabbath for observant Jews). The couple may perhaps have taken a northern route out of town to reach the fast A155 back to Bonn. If so, they may have passed near the spire of the St. Margaretha church in Bruehl. Celan's poem ends with a two-line stanza (shown below in German) that pairs Margareta, the golden-haired heroine from Goethe's Faust, with the ashen-haired Shulamith from Solomon's Song of Songs:
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
He may also have been thinking of Shulamith earlier as he hummed a Kurt Weill song in the restaurant. Along the route to Bonn are train tracks, moreover, and factories with smokestacks, causing anyone with family memories of the 1940s to recall that nightmare from the past.
He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master
he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then as smoke
to the sky
you'll then have a grave in the clouds where you won't lie
We memorize what's important to us and repeat it for strength to go on, to remind us who we are and what are our roots. The words become part of our moral resume. For some, the grounding words may be "Todesfuge" or Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" or a prayer or a name.
The narrator of "Bruehl" listened to her friend as he spoke from and of the darkness. Years later, as she read about the train wreck in Bruehl, she remembers her co-worker, who may subsequently have died, but who definitely remained faithful to his wife and children. Here, she offers a definition that is the obverse of mauvaise fois, "bad faith," with a private example of another's bona fides, "evidence of one's good faith or genuineness," and of her own choices.
*Author's Note: *See John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, Yale Nota Bene, 2001, p. 26). Lines from "Todesfuge" quoted here were translated by John Felstiner (ibid., pp. 31-32).
Editor's Note: Richard Straw's commentary and Ruth Holzer's "Bruehl" were first published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 2 (Winter 2009).